Behind Stone Walls (1932)

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Behind Stone Walls (1932) is a Poverty Row suspense drama about a district attorney (Robert Elliott) on track to become the next governor, but who gets derailed by his family’s involvement in a murder. This movie starts out like an instalment of “bad plot exposition theater” at a jolly but clearly tense chat in Elliott’s home. In no time flat, the characters introduce themselves, their occupations, their relationships and a juicy past. “Oh, dad, aren’t you great in court” says the son (Edward Nugent), “come here and talk to your dear ol’ mom,” says Priscilla Dean to Nugent, and, relevant to the crime about to happen, “you’re the reason I never married,” winks their guest, an attorney (Robert Ellis) to Dean. They disperse for the evening, with Elliott going to his office and promising to meet Ellis the next morning to discuss a case.

Now things get scandalous as Dean follows Ellis to his apartment, inflamed with jealousy over his new woman. Far from being a doting mother and classy society wife, she’s actually a dangerously possessive ex of Ellis’s and won’t take “it’s over” for an answer. Shades of Fatal Attraction, except Ellis is a bachelor whose closest companion is his butler (George Chesebro). The ex-lovers argue until Dean pulls a gun and murders Ellis, and she’s caught at the scene by her son Nugent, who’s dropped by with news about tomorrow’s meeting.

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Poor Nugent’s instinct is to send his mom back home, cover up evidence of her presence and make it look like a burglary gone wrong, but he’s found there with the body. One moment he’s a happy and promising young lawyer; the next he’s serving a life sentence for a murder which his silence has turned into a real mystery. The issue of why mom would permit this destruction of her son’s, and by extension her husband’s, life is addressed not only by showing her to be a selfish witch, but also by the revelation that she’s not Nugent’s real mother. It makes Nugent’s sacrifice and cheerful outlook in prison all the more painful to watch. All she cares about is the witness from that night who comes forward to blackmail her.

The motherly love missing in this family is made up with Elliott’s character, the loving and dedicated father. He’s ready to resign as D.A. so he can defend his son, and never stops believing that there’s some logical explanation for the killing. He begs Nugent to reveal the motive for this baffling crime, he tries threats and tough love, but Nugent won’t crack, since he thinks he’s protecting his dad from heartbreak or worse. Luckily, Nugent also has a loyal girlfriend (Ann Christy) who happens to spot mama Dean sneaking around with a strange man one night. Christy follows them, crawls through a window and overhears the truth, which leads to another death and a neat twist ending where Nugent gets to try his first case and display his own talent for courtroom argument.

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Behind Stone Walls is a Mayfair Picture, one of the many productions that came out of the Frank M. Like poverty row network of brands. After Like bought former actor Charles Ray’s production company and the lot that came with it, he made movies under his own name as well as the banners Mayfair, Action and Progressive. The director is Frank Strayer, who did The Vampire Bat (1933) and the first handful of Blondie movies, and the story is by George B. Seitz, a playwright, actor and director who wrote The Perils of Pauline (1914), directed The Last of the Mohicans (1936) and most of the Andy Hardy movies. It’s a good pedigree that brings some extra life to this gem in the rough. Yes, it’s crude, spare, stiff and a bit stagey, with no score and long pauses that feel empty, as if the actors are still waiting to be handed some of their lines. But in this case (as with many other Poverty Row pictures) that rawness is part of the appeal and the pulpy peeping into the seedy secrets of tuxedoed VIPs. In less than a hour, this bumpy but likable crime/family/courtroom drama packs in a nasty cheating wife, her fear of exposure, her noble son and his father’s faith and loyalty.

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